Nationality: American. Born: Falkville, Alabama, 11 February 1950. Education: University of Alabama, B.A. in English 1971; University of North Carolina, Greensboro, M.F.A. 1973. Family: Married 1) Virginia Kremza in 1972 (divorced 1979), one daughter;2) Gloria Nixon de Zepeda Jones in 1981, one son. Career: Copywriter, Frost & Frost Inc., Gadsden, Alabama, 1973–74; poet-inresidence, Poetry-in-the-Schools Programs, Tennessee, Alabama, and Virginia, 1974–76; poet-in-residence, Knoxville City Schools, 1977–78; writer-in-residence, Virginia Intermont College, Bristol, 1978–84. Since 1984, professor, Department of English, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Awards: Lavan Younger Poets award, Academy of American Poets, 1986, for The Unborn; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship; Guggenheim fellowship, 1985; General Electric Foundation Younger Writers award, 1986; Jean Stein prize, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1989; National Book Critics Circle award, 1989, for Transparent Gestures.Address: Department of English, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois 62901, U.S.A.
Going Ahead, Looking Back. Knoxville, Southbound Books, 1977.
The Story They Told Us of Light. Birmingham, University of Alabama, 1980.
The Unborn. Boston, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1985.
Transparent Gestures. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
Apocalyptic Narrative and Other Poems. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
Things That Happen Once: New Poems. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
Elegy for the Southern Drawl. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1999.*
Critical Studies: "The One Clear Upspoken Sign: Four Young Poets" by Louie Skipper, in Black Warrior Review (Tuscaloosa, Alabama), 12(2), spring 1986; by Bill Caton, in his Fighting Words: Words on Writing from 21 of the Heart of Dixie's Best Contemporary Authors, Montgomery, Alabama, Black Belt, 1995; "Ghostlier Demarcations, Taller Tales: Humor of the Old Southwest in the Poetry of Rodney Jones and Leon Stokesbury" by R.S. Gwynn, in Lamar Journal of the Humanities (Beaumont, Texas), 23(1), spring 1997.* * *
Rodney Jones's poems are anchored in the rural South, but they are the work of the smart kid who left for the big world. A number of his poems are full of a deep respect for the poor of both races struggling in the world, but he feels no need to make their dignity mythic or aristocratic. There also are many poems of the wise guy, failure, lover, father, striver, goofball, earnest student, professor, artist, and horny hippie kid. The range is impressive. His irony is habitual, stemming from a delightful sense of the absurd and with high-handed comic riffs, and it serves as a corrective to the sentiment of his elegiac sensibility.
Jones's first full book, The Story They Told Us of Light, was chosen by Elizabeth Bishop for the Associated Writing Programs Award Series. Although many of its poems are marred by the fashionable surrealism of the 1970s, the strengths are apparent. Some poets, like Donne, begin poems with extravagant gestures, but Jones has a characteristic intellectual and emotional leap at the end of his poems, where he flings himself into the search for meaning. This is illustrated in the following excerpts from, respectively, "Adam's Apple," "Goiter," and "for adults only":
But how shyly
you bowed your head. You knew
why dogs and kisses went for the throat.
But who will look the right way now
out of such a past? If I remember:
the last prayer was to be made whole;
the first was to be beautiful.
You wanted to see her, to know where it was,
You wanted the camera inside the heart.
The power of the last example is that the poem puts the camera where it belongs and not inside the cunt, where the pornographic imagination appears to want it. The poem surprises us with what at first seems to be only the ordinary, not an easy trick. It also points to the central theme of the book, put in "Micro Journey" as "trying to get inside." Here the phrase refers to women, the heart, the place, the culture, the mind.
In his following two books, The Unborn and Transparent Gestures, Jones continues to refine the characteristic flinging of himself toward meaning at the end of the poems. Other poets do this, but, unlike Philip Levine's practice, for example, where the poem rises from a flat style to eloquence, Jones's poems simply intensify an eloquence sustained throughout. His later style, freed of affectation, is strongly marked by intense eloquence, and Jones echoes Dylan Thomas ("the field mouse /turned back from the least kernel of the spindliest cob"), Hart Crane ("floating altars in the synagogues of the hummingbirds"), or Walt Whitman, with long lines in an elegiac mood. Unlike Crane or Thomas, however, he is never unclear. His syntax has the urgency of passionate speech that needs to make itself understood. Unlike Whitman, his music derives not from the recirculation and repetition of parallel structures and an incantatory drumming syntax but rather from the forward movement of complex, far-reaching, inclusive sentences that drive to an urgent conclusion.
As these two books move toward an aphoristic clarity, at the same time Jones's work becomes more analytic and elegiac. He is a smart observer of cultural and intellectual mores. "Winter Retreat: Homage to Martin Luther King, Jr.," for example, offers a grimly comic vision of a polite conference in praise of politically correct goals as a failure of vision. With its companion piece, "Pussy," it should become a classic of its kind—a venture into political incorrectness.
Jones's next book, Apocalyptic Narrative, plays against its title to become a cycle of praise, even in the title poem, about the love of apocalypse that we manage to survive with our more mundane calls to faith and love. The book is filled with elegies for the dying balanced against the birth of the poet's son. The praise we find here is not the less passionate for being full of sharp discriminations, as in "The Work of Poets":
Up here in the unforgivable amnesia of libraries,
Where many poems lie dying of first-person omniscience,
The footnotes are doing their effete dance, as always.
In this book the poems are more inclusive. The themes are amplified with variations, the meaning of clothes is widely illustrated, and the notion of apocalypse runs through political, erotic, and military changes. To this end Jones's long sentences driving toward an ample notion of meaning—not to simplicity but to complexity and abundance—serve their subjects brilliantly.
The ordering mind is passionately engaged here, even in its memorable comedy. There is a serious pursuit of wisdom in this richly musical poetry.